The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely

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In this pathbreaking philosophical work, Elizabeth Grosz points the way toward a theory of becoming to replace the prevailing ontologies of being in social, political, and biological discourse. Arguing that theories of temporality have significant and underappreciated relevance to the social dimensions of science and the political dimensions of struggle, Grosz engages key theoretical concerns related to the reality of time. She explores the effect of time on the organization of matter and on the emergence and development of biological life. Considering how the relentless forward movement of time might be conceived in political and social terms, she begins to formulate a model of time that incorporates the future and its capacity to supersede and transform the past and present.

Grosz develops her argument by juxtaposing the work of three major figures in Western thought: Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson. She reveals that in theorizing time as an active, positive phenomenon with its own characteristics and specific effects, each of these thinkers had a profound effect on contemporary understandings of the body in relation to time. She shows how their allied concepts of life, evolution, and becoming are manifest in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Luce Irigaray. Throughout The Nick of Time, Grosz emphasizes the political and cultural imperative to fundamentally rethink time: the more clearly we understand our temporal location as beings straddling the past and the future without the security of a stable and abiding present, the more transformation becomes conceivable.

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Editorial Reviews

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“Elizabeth Grosz traces a timely path through the work of three major thinkers. Darwin, Nietzsche, and Bergson, each in his own way, force a rethinking of duration and transformation at the interchange between nature and culture. The Nick of Time suggestively connects their trajectories, drawing them together into a contemporary dialogue on the politics and philosophy of change.”—Brian Massumi, author of Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation

“Elizabeth Grosz’s The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution and the Untimely is a major work. It achieves a richly nuanced and sweeping reconsideration of temporality in the context of contemporary feminist theory, critical theory, and theories of evolution. The considerations of Darwin, Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze, and Irigaray are especially impressive. The Nick of Time is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how memory, historicity, and politics connect to and are reconfigured by temporality.”—N. Katherine Hayles, author of How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics

“Superbly written, deftly executed, and wonderfully instructive, The Nick of Time is a first-class piece of writing and thinking. It is unique in that it is interested in ‘philosophy of life’ issues not only for their own sake but also because of Elizabeth Grosz’s wider theoretical and practical commitments, such as feminism and a radical cultural politics.”—Keith Ansell Pearson, author of Germinal Life: The Difference and Repetition of Deleuze

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822334002
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2004
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Grosz is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space; Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies; and Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. She is the editor of Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures.

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Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3400-2

Chapter One


Darwin's great novelty, perhaps, was that of inaugurating the thought of individual difference. The leitmotiv of The Origin of Species is: we do not know what individual difference is capable of! We do not know how far it can go, assuming we add to it natural selection.-Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

Ontology seems to be the forgotten or elided element of contemporary philosophy. The devastating critique of metaphysics that revitalized the natural sciences, helped generate the social sciences, and effectively transformed philosophy during the earliest years of the twentieth century has perhaps succeeded only too well in adjudicating not only the appropriate and inappropriate questions to which knowledge must direct itself, but in dismissing many questions that, it seems, we cannot do without, that we cannot but ask. Some of the most basic questions of ontology-What is matter? What is life? How do they link together? What are their relations of intrication?-need to be readdressed, perhaps not in the same terms in which they were originally considered, but in more contemporarylanguage, which considers the social, historical, and political context in which metaphysics is invariably, if unconsciously, embedded. In the desire to abandon metaphysical presuppositions and to replace the apparently unanswerable questions of ontology with the more modest propositions of epistemology, self-consciously moving from the unknown to the knowable, shifting the ground from what exists to what we know, the inevitable ontological investments of discourses, the presuppositions they must make about the modes, types, and forms of existence they analyze, have remained unexamined, though the production of ontologies continues unabated. In distancing ontology ever further from epistemology, we lose the capacity to provide political critiques of epistemologies, for we lose access to what is outside, to the outside of knowledges, to what they leave out, transform, or cannot know. The more we focus on the production of knowledges, the less we are able to address the real, what is outside, what constitutes the gaps or flaws of existing knowledges.

I examine three interrelated philosophical clusters of concepts that are embedded in these central questions of ontology. First, I explore those ontologies in which matter is imbued with a dynamism or activity, in which nature is construed as force, provocation, activity, or incitement, rather than, as is the current fashion in feminist and cultural studies, where nature is considered an inert passivity onto which life, culture, and the human impose themselves. Second, I examine those epistemological frameworks that actively arm the perspectival orientation of all forms of knowledge, the historical, social, and sexual specificity of ways of seeing the world, ways of understanding the real, which accept that there may be a number of competing and possibly incommensurable epistemic models adequate to the richness of the real. Third, I examine those discourses that imbue time with an existence autonomous from space, from objects and from models that privilege causal or deterministic prediction, which see time in terms of the precedence of the future, time as an active, forward-moving force, a positivity that both coheres and transforms, that makes as much as it unmakes or decays. These three clusters of concepts-those linking matter, time, and (sexual and other forms of) difference-are embedded in their own ontological presuppositions, and between them, they may help us both to refigure and transform the stasis associated with most conceptualizations of ontology and to understand matter and life as dynamic forces, bound in various forms of cohesion, as modalities of difference. This conception of life as the mobilization of maximal difference links these abstract metaphysical questions to the concerns of contemporary politics, that is, to the productive destabilization of present social and cultural arrangements. Rethinking time and matter may help transform how we understand politics and political struggle.

This highly selective discussion of the intrication of life with time and matter begins with the key writings of Charles Darwin, who not only developed the theory of natural selection into a scientific research paradigm of unparalleled fruitfulness and success for nearly a century and a half, but who also produced a philosophical framework whose resonances have still not been properly understood, even today. There has been a great deal of attention devoted to Darwinism, to scientific developments and elaborations within biology and its cognate disciplines since the writings of Darwin himself, and a vast amount of published material has appeared under the rubric of scientific or empirical Darwinism. Darwinism has also had a powerful effect on literature, on cultural and artistic representations, on economic and political discourses. Yet, rather surprisingly, it has not had the same impact on philosophy or, more generally, theory, which has tended to address it only marginally, if at all. Only in recent years has analytic philosophy embraced Darwinian biological models as paradigms of mind, and it is even more rare to find philosophers from the Continental tradition invested in exploring the philosophical implications of Darwin's work.

Instead of examining the scientific development and elaboration of Darwinism through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-a fascinating project but well beyond the scope of this book-I concentrate in this and in the next two chapters on Darwin's own writings on natural and sexual selection, and on elaborating his understanding of evolution as the emergence in time of biological innovation and surprise. It is my claim that although there are acknowledged and well-recognized gaps and points of unclarity in Darwin's understanding-most notably, his self-avowed ignorance of the mechanisms of inheritance, published in its earliest and most speculative form by Gregor Mendel in 1863, only a few years after the publication of the first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859/1996)-his account of the development of species, including the descent of man, provides a powerful and fundamentally plausible and suitably complex understanding both of the genesis of (primitive) life from the complexities of matter and of the growing elaboration, adaptation, and specialization of organisms to their stable or changing life conditions. Darwin's work is of direct relevance to feminist concerns and indeed is a commonly elided assumption of much feminist work, even as it tends to be identified with patriarchal privilege. Darwin develops an account of a real that is an open and generative force of self-organization and growing complexity, a dynamic real that has features of its own which, rather than simply exhibit stasis, a fixed essence or unchanging characteristics, are more readily understood in terms of active vectors of change. Darwin managed to make this dynamism, this imperative to change, the center of his understanding of life itself and the very debt that life owes to the enabling obstacle that is organized matter. This dynamism of life is the condition of not only cultural existence but also cultural resistance. While presenting an ontology of life, Darwin also provokes a concern with the possibilities of becoming, and becoming-other, inherent in culture, which are also the basic concerns of feminist and other political and social activists.

What Is "Origin"?

The question of origins, and of originality, is paradoxically not only the buried center of Darwin's concept of the evolution of species, it is also one of the critical historical questions directed to Darwin's own discourse. It is today a truism that Darwin's Origin of Species (hereafter OS) precisely refuses to deal with the question of the origin of species! It is also well recognized that Charles Darwin is not really the originator of the theory of natural selection, of modification with descent, or the struggle for existence, though his name is now singularly associated with a new discipline, or a new approach to an old discipline, bringing a mass of scientific information, a vast repertoire of empirical observations, together to produce an ever more credible and carefully detailed account. One of Darwin's first critics, Samuel Butler, in Luck or Cunning? (1887), charged Darwin with refusing to acknowledge the origins of the theory of natural selection by refusing to admit his utilization of already existing sources, particularly the work of Georges Buon, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Robert Chambers, and, above all, Erasmus Darwin, Charles's paternal grandfather. It is one of the quirks of history that many of these ideas were developed in the first instance by the elder Darwin (1731-1802), a prominent doctor, naturalist, inventor of quite sophisticated machines (including various machines of locomotion anticipating the steam engine), as well as a political activist and free thinker (who struggled, among other things, against the institution of slavery and for the humane treatment of the insane, abstaining from both alcohol and Christianity). The origins of the theory of the origin of species is itself indeterminate and impossible to pin down precisely. However, I am less interested in the genealogy of Charles Darwin's ideas than in their form and structure, in their philosophical and ontological investments, that is, in understanding how his account of evolution works, what limits and problems it might have, what this account adds to the ways we understand time, matter, and life, and ultimately, how these explain or limit cultural life and provide us with more complex ways of understanding politics and political change.

The question of how to represent or understand the origin of species is intimately bound up with the question of how to understand the identity, or unity, of the object of biological and historical investigation. This is among the most complex and underdiscussed elements of Darwinism, the point where Darwin's own account uncannily anticipates Derridean différance. What is the minimal unit, the scientific object, of investigation: the individual, the group, the species, or life in its generality? How species develop and undergo modification over the passage of time is closely linked with the criteria of differentiation between one group and another closely allied with it. What differentiates one species from another? How do we tell where one species ends and another begins? How small or large must the differences between them be for us to designate the emergence of new species from already existing ones? These are the questions any science, at its inception, must ask in order to attain scientific status: What, in the clearest terms, is the object of analysis, and how can this object be decomposed into its most elementary parts? In attempting to devise workable (and necessarily anti-essentialist) answers to these questions, Darwin inadvertently introduces a fundamental indeterminacy into the largely Newtonian framework he aspired to transpose into the field of natural history: the impossibility of either exact prediction or even precise calculation or designation, the seeking of tendencies rather than individual causes, of broad principles rather than universal laws. Darwin introduced a new understanding of what science must be to be adequate to the reality of life itself, which has no real units, no agreed upon boundaries or clear-cut objects, and to the reality of time and change that it entails. This differentiated his understanding of natural selection from that of his contemporaries and predecessors: such a science could not take the ready-made or pregiven unity of individuals or classes for granted but had to understand how any provisional unity and cohesion derives from the oscillations and vacillations of difference. The origin can be nothing but a difference!

Darwin provides little discussion and no real explanation of the origin of species. He analyzes only the descent, the genealogy, the historical movement (for we cannot even call it progress) of species, the movement from an earlier to a later form, a movement that presupposes an origin that it cannot explain, which perhaps is not an origin except in retrospect. The question of origins, the emergence of the first forms of life in simple strings of proteins from nonliving chemical mixtures, has recently become a focal point of evolutionary conjecture, even though Darwin did indulge in some brief and undeveloped speculation on this question toward the end of Origin:

I believe that animals are descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number.

Analogy would lead me one step farther, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants are descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common ... so that all organisms start from a common origin. (OS 642)

Though Darwin seems to be reluctant to address the highly speculative question of origins, and though he lacked any scientific evidence to aid in these speculations, he does hypothesize that it may be the case that "all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth may be descended from some one primordial form" (643), but he never goes further than to suggest that this is highly conjectural and, in some sense, ultimately irrelevant. It does not matter for the evolutionary project how life arose, as long as when it did, it conformed to the principles of individual variation and natural selection. Moreover, though we may not understand how or even when this transformation from the inorganic to the organic takes place, we can be assured that it did take place, for our own existence is proof of it. Darwin is extremely careful in Origin to provide arguments only for those claims for which he has amassed scientific evidence, but he does speculate in private correspondence to Hooker about this "moment" of emergence of life from nonlife: "But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity and etc., present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes" (quoted in Depew and Weber 1997, 399-400).

This remains a question of enormous interest to contemporary Darwinians, to molecular biology, to ethological simulations, and especially to those working in the arena of artificial life, a-life (the modeling and simulation of life, usually very simplified representations of life, in open-ended computer programs), as well as to philosophy: Out of what raw materials and using what processes did the simplest forms of life emerge? What were the non-organic ingredients of the prebiotic soup out of which elementary life appeared? What is the point of conversion from chemical to biological components? How closely tied are biological life forms to the particular chemistry of those forms of life with which we are familiar? We, and all creatures on earth, are carbon-based life forms. The question contemporary a-life scientists ask is: Is life essentially tied to those accidental, carbon-based life forms we know today? Can there be a silicon-based or, say, a nitrogen-based life form? What, for example, are those open-ended computer programs that exhibit reproductive, regulative, and emergent properties, similar, at least in some respects, to other forms of life? Was the emergence of life highly improbable, a freak occurrence, unlikely to be repeated? Or was it, immanent in the inorganic chemistry of the universe, a likely consequence of chemical potential? Just what kind of chemical complexity and types of transformations are necessary to precondition or refigure life?


Excerpted from THE NICK OF TIME by ELIZABETH GROSZ Copyright © 2004 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : to the untimely 1
1 Darwinian matters : life, force, and change 17
2 Biological difference 40
3 The evolution of sex and race 64
4 Nietzsche's Darwin 95
5 History and the untimely 113
6 The eternal return and the overman 135
7 Bergsonian difference 155
8 The philosophy of life 185
9 Intuition and the virtual 215
Conclusion : the future 244
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